Understanding Computers
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  Unzipping the Secrets of Downloads
One of my favourite pastimes is cruising the internet for free computer stuff; not free computers, but free applications, games, utilities and music. Many dedicated, extremely talented people are developing high quality software and then giving it away. For every sort of program you can name, somewhere out there is a free version.
The first question many of our clients ask is, "What's in it for these people?" I like this question. A healthy scepticism is a useful tool when surfing the web. Freeware and shareware publishers fall into three large categories: open source, commercial, and exploitive. Open source publishers believe that computer wares should be free for all to enjoy. They freely provide not only applications, but the code used to create them. Commercial publishers hope to encourage sales by giving away free samples. They usually offer versions of their programs that are limited in either time or functionality. Sometimes called shareware, these applications are often very useful. The exploiters have what is usually called a hidden agenda. The two main forms of exploitation are spyware and tantalizing links to nowhere.
Spyware programs collect information from your computer and pass it on to anyone who knows how to ask for it. Some applications remember all your passwords, some keep track of the websites you visit, or the purchases you make online. The information may be sold to a third party. Spyware is often hidden inside otherwise useful programs, such as GetRight.
Tantalizing links to nowhere result from an ages-old marketing ploy being abused by internet entrepreneurs. Many companies pay a referral fee to anyone who directs potential customers to their website, in about the same way that the doorman at a Tijuana tavern is paid for every customer that he steers through the door. Certain individuals realized that users could be lured to websites that contained nothing but links to other websites. The unwitting person is often forwarded automatically to one or more paying sites, which in turn forward the person to more such sites, creating an endless tunnel of pop-up advertisements.
How can you take advantage of all the great free stuff, while protecting yourself from the exploiters? Along with your healthy scepticism, you should develop a library of trusted freeware and shareware sites. Non-exploitive websites frequently store applications on their own server. This is nerd-speak for "they keep the items they offer in stock." These sites also tend to load quickly and have few, if any ads. You can find some good examples on the "Links" page of the Understanding Computers website, www.understandingcomputers.ca.
One of our links goes to a great program from Lavasoft called Ad-Aware. Ad-Aware routes out spyware and lets you delete the offending files, usually without disrupting the host application. Don't be surprised if you discover ten or more spyware applications on your computer.
Finally, if you find yourself in a tunnel of pop-up advertising, close your browser. If need be, disconnect from the internet and close all the pop-up windows, then re-connect.
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